Computing: A Summary

The world headquarters of Multicom, in Åmli, in southern Norway. In addition to providing me with about half of my computing equipment, it also provides employment to about 40 local residents. Photo: Multicom.

This series about computing has consisted of 24 parts, published through much of 2020. Its goal was to help people make appropriate choices as they struggle through the maze of computer component/ device/ system acquisition opportunities.

It is my intention in 2021 and beyond to update the posts that constitute this series, at approximately annual intervals, somewhat close to their original date of publication. At the bottom of each updated post, there will be a statement providing a version history, and a summary of content changes. Subscribers will not be notified about these changes.

One person, who I know reasonably well, has never used a computer, and never made the transition to a smartphone, but relies on a clamshell mobile phone, anno 2020. This has serious consequences. For example, it means that common banking services are unavailable, medical appointments have to be made using a living intermediary, and there are no opportunities to buy anything online. One is dependent on a printed newspaper and television/ radio broadcasts for information. Unfortunately, there is very little people can do to help this person enter the digital age.

Today’s weblog post is personal. It looks at the wants, needs and thought processes of a single person. It attempts to show what this person takes into consideration before making an acquisition. Writing this series was an opportunity for me to learn how to make smarter choices when it came to purchasing equipment! It is written through the prism of an older person.

Budgeting: Simple

The world is unfair. In this context it has to do with disposable income and apportioning some of that to buy computing infrastructure related services (web, broadband and cell-phone subscriptions) and products (cell-phones, computers, printers, servers, memory sticks, etc.). Some people can afford a lot, while others will have to consider the relative merits of every proposed expenditure.

At the end of 2020, every adult (and almost every child) needs a smartphone. In Norway these cost between NOK 2 000 and 10 000. They need to be replaced about every three years, although some replace them twice as often. We kept our first smartphones for almost five years. Thus, this expenditure can vary from about NOK 500 a year, to over NOK 5 000. To put it another way, frugality can provide considerable cost savings.

Apart from broadband connections and cell-phone subscriptions, almost all other computer expenditures are voluntary. The most impoverished with a need for a computer should consider buying a five year old laptop, with a price of NOK 1 000, and keep it for another five years. In addition, they may need to install and use an operating system suitable for older equipment, which in most cases means Linux. This machine needs to be augmented with at least one (preferably two) external hard-drives, for backup. Here, I would not compromise, but purchase new equipment. Two of these could cost as little as NOK 1 300, and last five years. Currently, our new external drives are Toshiba Canvio Advance units. Basic level units are cheaper, and have almost the same functionality, except for hardware encryption.

With a minimal solution, there is no need for a printer, or other peripherals. As one ages, there may be increased need for ergonomic peripheral equipment. These will also have to be considered in terms of a budget. Even here, there is a possibility to buy used equipment, and to keep it/ them for many years.

There are people in Norway who have sub-minimal solutions. They have no broadband, and rely on prepaid cards, instead of cell-phone subscriptions. They may only own a clam-shell dumb-phone and nothing more. It is also one reason why I have a low threshold to give away equipment, especially to people who are unemployable or underemployed, or live on minimal disability or old–age pensions.

Budgeting: Complex

Sometimes, it is useful to have a budget that can take the form of an equation. It looks scientific, though it isn’t. However, it might still express a relationship between budget items. I discovered that the following fits gudenuf for the past four years: z = a (x + 1), where z = total budget, a = annual web, internet and telephone subscription costs, and x = the number of people in the household.

At Cliff Cottage broadband costs NOK 619 per month, while our telephone subscriptions cost NOK 118 per month each. The web-related subscriptions cost NOK 1 436 per year. Subscriptions amount to NOK 11 700 per year, in total.

If this budget for subscriptions seems excessive, we have the cheapest broadband rate (50 Mbps) available locally, and the cheapest cell-phone subscriptions (with 5 GB of data) that are available in Norway. Others may have 500 Mbps of broadband, with multiple television channels, and pay almost NOK 1 300 per month. Some pay NOK 1 700 for twice as many channels and 1 000 Mbps = 1 Gbps broadband. Cell phone subscriptions vary up to about NOK 450 for unlimited voice and up to 100 GB of data per month. This would give a monthly cost of NOK 2 600, or NOK 31 200 a year, over twice of what we are paying now.

In this household, x = 2, that is, there are 2 people. Z = the total budget, which amounts to NOK 35 100 per year. Apart from the subscription payments, the other NOK 23 400 goes to pay for computer infrastructure, such as a NAS server components, Ethernet cabling, printers or a house cinema components, not to mention paper and ink/ toner. Then there are personal devices for each resident. Personal devices may consist of laptop/ desktop machines, hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets, as well as memory sticks, solid-state drives, etc.

The great advantage of having a budget, is that it forces one to think through expenditures and their economic implications. It also shows important people in the household that one actually has a plan, and that plan is being followed. The great disadvantage, is that costs don’t always follow a linear curve.

Replacements

At some point smartphones will have to be replaced. My 3.5mm headphone/ microphone jack has been damaged. I have found a temporary fix, but it will not last forever. So, the frequency of this type of purchase may increase. In addition, I am considering buying a Fairphone 3+, which is almost twice as expensive as my current phone, at about NOK 6 000. This is not a final decision. Fairphones may be easy to repair, but they also seem to need more repairs than many other phones.

Laptops are increasing in price. What used to cost NOK 6 000 in 2016 costs NOK 10 000 in 2020. The most popular laptop in Norway is currently a MacBook Air with an M1 processor, which costs almost NOK 13 000. The most popular non-Apple PC is a Huawei MateBook that costs NOK 20 000. The most popular Asus computer, a Zenbook, costs NOK 23 000. Gaming laptops can cost in excess of NOK 40 000. At some point a five year old Asus Zenbook laptop will have to be replaced. A suitable replacement will cost somewhere between NOK 10 – 12 000.

In the coming year, 2021, I know already that I will have an approximately NOK 4 500 expenditure for the network attached storage (NAS) server, in the form of two Toshiba N300 8 TB drives. This is because the NAS is already 73% full, with its current 4 x 8 TB drives. This figure should never exceed 80%, so something will have to be done. Producing less data, does not seem to be an option. Fortunately, the NAS holds up to 12 drives, so that only half of the drive bays will be occupied with this upgrade. Two additional external 4 TB drives will also be purchased, at a cost of about NOK 2 500. Thus, I expect to spend at least NOK 7 000 on backup, each and every year forward. Once all of the 12 drives on the NAS are filled, the oldest ones will have been in place for 6 years, and probably need replacing. The same is also true of the external drives, that are being stored outside of Cliff Cottage.

Taking these purchases into consideration, an equation that has been useful for several years, may prove to be inadequate in the future.

Operating Systems: An Aside

Computer operating systems are all the same, yet each one is different. A consensus emerges among developers, so that systems start resembling one another. At the same time, developers want to assert their independence.

Since 2016, I have used Linux Mint as my primary operating system (OS), with a Cinnamon desktop environment. This is probably about as close as one can get to an updated version of the Microsoft Windows XP OS. XP was released in 2001, with an end of support life that ended between 2009 and 2019. XP received acclaim for its performance, stability, user interface, hardware support and multimedia capabilities.

At Cliff Cottage, we have used many other OSes. Our first home computer used Amiga OS. Then we had machines with Windows, Macintosh, Linux and even Chrome OS. The other resident at Cliff Cottage used Windows, until 2020-08, when she went over to Linux Mint. She claims that the transition did not involve any significant trauma.

While Linux Mint will probably continue to be the main OS at Cliff Cottage, each machine also allows other OSes to be installed, for experimental or other purposes. This includes Windows 10, if it is needed. Thus, Mageia 8, when it is launched, will be installed on a machine for sentimental reasons.

We have used smartphones since 2011, with iOS as well as Android on them. While I have talked, and written about a de-googlized Android OS from the e foundation, I realize that this will have to await the next purchase of a handheld device.

If I could encourage one change, it is for current Windows 10 users, who are unhappy with their OS, to try a user friendly version of Linux to see if they feel more comfortable with it. One such OS is the latest version of Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop. This can be done by making a live version, which means copying a bootable version of it onto a USB flash drive/ memory stick/ thumb drive. By booting up from this drive, Linux will be available. Those who, after this trial, feel uncomfortable using Linux do not have to do anything, except to avoid booting up from the USB drive again. Those that find they prefer Linux can, at some point, install it on their machine, either alone or as part of a dual-boot system with their original OS. The memory stick can then be used to boot Linux on other computers. Linux is particularly well suited for older hardware.

Buying computer equipment

The acquisition of computer equipment faces three major challenges. First, equipment (hardware as well as software) is continuously evolving. Yet, while computing power has increased significantly over the past years, changes are more evolutionary than before. Today, there is a greater emphasis on power per watt, than on raw processing power. This applies to personal machines, as well as servers. While hand-held devices (smartphones and tablets) have become more dominant, there is still a need for personal computers – laptops as well as desktop machines. Servers may be hidden in a cloud, or in an attic/ basement/ closet, but they too are performing more work.

Keyboards and mice are the most important input devices, as they have been since 1984. The screen is the most important output device. It has become thinner, with improved resolution. Broadband, and other forms of communication, increasingly allow large quantities of data to move throughout cyberspace.

Second, people continuously age. This may be seem as something positive in a fifteen year old looking forward to being twenty. It may even be regarded as inevitable by a seventy-five year old contemplating eighty.

Younger people should receive a critical education that allows them to appreciate the value technology brings, but to be wary of its detrimental aspects. Technology is not benign. Gaming is a particularly difficult challenge, because many youth become addicted to it. Thus, it may be necessary to restrict computer access to ensure that people get enough sleep, perhaps by disconnecting WiFi and/ or wired internet access, say from 22:00 or 23:00 to 06:00 or 07:00, respectively.

Older youth could be encouraged to use computers productively for the benefit of themselves and their family. On 2020-11-02, the Raspberry Pi Foundation launched the Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer kit, the purchase of such of system at £/ €/ $ 100, and the matching of it to an existing display, would provide an ideal development machine for a young person. Many home automation tasks could be implemented by people in this category.

For those approaching midlife, there is a continual need to adapt, and to learn new technological skills. Society should be concerned when thirty/ forty/ fifty/ sixty-five year olds give up on acquiring/ developing new computing skills, while the world/ computer hardware/ computer software moves onwards. It is important to keep abreast of rising trends, but not to be a slave to them. One particularly damaging trend is for employers to make sideways investments in software. The expectation is that these new programs will add capabilities. However, they often end up doing the same thing, just in a slightly different way, that requires old skills to be relearned. This can be very discouraging.

Adaptability also applies to older people, but in a slightly different way. They have to think about impairments (current and potential). They also have to think long term! They may want to keep equipment longer than younger people, who are more adept at handling change. Older people may prefer to make an evolutionary transition to something a little different, rather than a radical change to something totally new.

Third, prices change erratically, so that what seems inaccessible one day, becomes affordable the next – and vice versa. Price is one of the major determinants of what people buy. This topic will be amplified later in this post, with specific examples.

Eratic pricing

Almost every computer equipment purchaser wants to be portrayed as astute. Everywhere, there are hypothetical bargains that save money! The truth of the matter is that many purchasers are undisciplined, and exceed their budgets. This writer is no exception. At the beginning of 2020 the equipment budget for the reserve/ lab/ electronics/ podcasting computer system was NOK 10 000: computer = 4 000, screen = 2 000, other peripherals = 3 000, miscellaneous = 1 000. In contrast, a RPi 400 would have cost about NOK 1 000, and used an existing screen. However, it would not have been able to use many of the ergonomic peripherals, envisioned.

Yet, a budget challenge arose almost immediately after the pandemic struck. The Benq monitor I had contemplated, an upgraded variant of the model used at the workshop in Straumen, had increased in price from a little over NOK 2 000 to almost NOK 3 000, call it a 40% increase in less than a year. It was time to look for something different. This turned out to be an AOC office display with more than adequate specifications. The AOC display started the year off at NOK 3 000 then gradually increased in price to NOK 3 500. Yet, overnight, it was suddenly NOK 1 200 cheaper, and I purchased it for NOK 2 300, NOK 600 less than the Benq with inferior specifications.

Substitutes are not always available. I had always planned to buy a Logitech MX Vertical mouse, and Logitech ERGO K860 keyboard to experience their ergonomic characteristics. At NOK 1050 and NOK 1200, respectively, neither was cheap. Another peripheral on my purchase list was a headset. Many sites with reviews about headsets for the hearing impaired had suggested assorted version of Audio Technica products, commonly the ATH-M50X at NOK 1 100. However, these are headphones for listening, without a microphone for talking. These could be connected with an Audio Technica ATR3350iS omnidirectional condenser lavalier microphone, that comes with an adapter, allowing it to be used with handheld devices. These cost almost NOK 550, for a total price of almost NOK 1 650. Thus, I started to investigate office and gaming headsets. The Logitech G433 and the Logitech G Pro X also seemed too expensive, at NOK 1 250 and NOK 1 350 respectively. I decided that I could stretch myself to buy a Logitech G Pro at NOK 1 000, as a compromise. However, on the day I decided to buy one, the price of the G Pro X at NOK 900, was lower than either the G Pro or G433. It was purchased.

With the Norwegian Krone (NOK) crashing due to the pandemic, the budget couldn’t hold. The Asus PN50 barebone cost just NOK 4 300, but needed a hard drive (Samsung EVO 970 Plus M.2 500 GB = NOK 1 200) and RAM (G Skill Ripjaws4 16 GB = NOK 800). This puts the price at NOK 6 400, which is more than 50% over budget. Yet, it was purchased because it seemed inexpensive, relative to performance. A month after the purchase, the PN50̈́’s barebone price has increased to NOK 5 900. However, the Samsung SSD is now only NOK 1 000, while the G Skill RAM is the same price, NOK 800, for a total of NOK 7 700, over 90% above the initial budget. Given these prices, a less powerful machine would have been chosen.

Todays prices: The Logitech MX Vertical is NOK 850, the ERGO K860 is NOK 1 370, and the G Pro X headset is NOK 1 300. The ACO screen has also wavered in price. Soon after my purchase it increased to about NOK 3 200, then it fell once again to NOK 2 400.

The used Asus A-i-O Pro 500 from 2015, cost NOK 2 500 plus NOK 150 delivery charges. The new price for a similar machine, but with a more modern and capable processor, is over NOK 10 000.

Local Sources

In general, I try to buy products made and/ or sold by local companies. There are different rings of local. It can mean Inderøy – our municipality, Innherred – our region, Trøndelag – our county, Norway – our country, Norden – Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland officially (and Estonia, for me personally); or Europe – our continent, Beyond this, much of the computer equipment purchased is made by Taiwanese or South-Korean companies. These would be bought from local stores, if they bothered to stock them (which they don’t) which means an increased reliance on online suppliers. The two preferred ones are located in small villages: Multicom, located in Åmli (population 1 836), in the extreme south of Norway, and the municipality’s second largest company; Proshop, actually a Danish company, but located in Bø i Telemark (population 6 101) located about 122 km/ 2 hours drive north-east of Åmli.

The used machines that have been purchased have mainly been sourced locally. That is, in close proximity to where a family member lives, which for the past few years has also included Bergen.

Hobby Budgets

For the past 70+ years, I have tried to perfect an incredulous look. When my name, computers and budget are mashed together in a sentence, this is my cue to display this look. Unfortunately, the person I most often try to impress with it, has become totally unfazed by it.

The term hobby refers to a sluice-gate that allows unknown quantities of cash, and other forms of money, to escape a household. In return, assorted pieces of equipment, usually termed junk by non-believers, miraculously appear.

To see an example of how hobbies can get out-of-hand, one is encouraged to watch one or more episodes of Rust Valley Restorers, on Netflix. Mike Hall, at Tappen, British Columbia, near Shuswap Lake, has 400+ rusting vehicles awaiting restoration.

At some point it is necessary to separate what is part of a household infrastructure, from hobby activity. Superficially, items may look very much the same, and there could be a tendency to disguise a hobby purchase as an infrastructure purchase. People are advised to avoid this and other forms of self-deception.

Thus, some computer related purchases are now being budgeted not under the computing infrastructure budget, but as in the hobby electronics category.

Needs/ Wants

Because I have the opportunity to do so, I prioritize the purchase of computer equipment beyond minimal household needs. While these could be considered (and budgeted) as part of the computing infrastructure, a more honest appropriation is to consider them as hobby electronics expenditures.

There were four areas that I wanted to improve, in 2020.

  • A reserve machine (in case of a breakdown)
  • A dedicated electronics hobby machine
  • An audio/ video editor
  • A soft-synth (computer based synthesizer)

Not all of these were to be used immediately for these purposes, and not all of them required a dedicated machine.

Reserve machine

Normally, a retired computer acts as a reserve, if something should go wrong with an active computer. Towards the end of 2019, the only potential reserve machine had been given away. Thus, throughout most of 2020, I contemplated the purchase of a reserve system, one that could be used by anyone living at or visiting Cliff Cottage.

One thought was to buy a used Asus Zenbook UX305C, identical to one in active use at Cliff Cottage. However, these machines date from 2016, so they are approaching five years old.

If one had waited until after its launch, a RPi 400 (previously mentioned above) would have made an ideal reserve machine. Admittedly, an inferior system to the reserve system that was finally purchased. It also requires a slightly different mind-set to use, since not all programs in daily use (such as Mozilla Firefox) are easily available on the RPi.

Eerie

Happenstance dictated that Eerie, a computer purchased in September/ October, is completely different from the one envisioned earlier in the year. The basic machine is a barebone computer. Wikipedia defines barebone as, “a partially assembled platform or an unassembled kit of computer parts allowing more customization and lower costs than a retail computer system.” It is not an ASRock Beebox (used at the Techno Workshop in Straumen) with an Intel processor, or a Gigabyte Brix with a AMD Richland processor, but an Asus PN50 with a Ryzen 7. The reasons are simple. First, as I approached the age of 72, I decided that I did not want to learn the quirks of a Beebox or a Brix. It is hard enough keeping up with those in the Asus family. Second, the machine has a powerful processor. This makes it useful and durable. Third, the machine is fanless. This makes it silent, useful when recording audio. Fourth, the machine was relatively cheap.

In 2020-09, some of the equipment was ordered, and turned into a functioning system by mid 2020-10. Eerie is not just a reserve machine, it is also being used as a lab Guinea pig, and for podcast recording and editing. In the future, it will also be programmed as a soft-synth. Currently, it is being used to test out ergonomic hardware and software. The name Eerie comes from the Children’s science fiction series in 19 episodes shown in 1992-3.

Eureka

On 2020-12-07, I purchased a used Asus All-in-One Pro computer. It is a computer inside a screen. This will make a better reserve machine than Eerie. It will be used as a tool for practical electronic hobby activities. One specific need is to construct room controllers. These will probably involve Raspberry Pi units, Power over Ethernet, sensors and touch screens.

Eureka is named after the family science fiction series in 77 episodes shown between 2006 and 2012, made in Burnaby, Chilliwack and Ladysmith, British Columbia.

In the future, a control unit for a CNC milling machine in the workshop will be needed. My last day as a construction worker is scheduled for Monday, 2023-10-30. Even though there is still considerable time before a milling machine controller is needed, it is useful to evaluate the Asus All-in-One unit in this role.

YouTube

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a YouTube video can be worth a hundred pictures. The main problem is that some people produce excessively long videos. Fifteen minutes is about all I can take, unless the producer is extremely pedagogical. Here are the top channels that I watch regularly:

In addition to these, younger people may find these of interest:

Final words

Know the characteristics of the equipment you want and – perhaps more importantly – your reasons for wanting it. Then determine an acceptable price you are willing to pay. That way, if a bargain appears at a price below the target price, you can purchase it without hesitation. Regardless of whether the initial price seems high or low, it is the lifespan of the product that is important. An inexpensive device that lasts less than a year, can be a much worse investment than buying something twice as expensive that lasts four years or more.